by Jean-Francois Seznec
Observers of the Middle East woke up on the normally peaceful day after the New Year to the unsettling news that Saudi Arabia had executed 47 terrorists. Among the executed were three foreign nationals, 40 Saudi Sunnis followers of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and four Saudi Shi’a including the world famous Sheikh al-Nimr. At first sight, the Saudi leadership seems to be trying to send a message to all Saudi extremists who call for the violent overthrow of the regime that they will be punished ruthlessly. The percentage of Shi’a who were executed corresponds to the proportion of Shi’a in the Saudi population, giving the impression no sect was spared or singled out. The execution of Sunni extremists whose “brothers” bombed Shi’a mosques and killed people indiscriminately would have been well received in the Shi’a population. By the same token, the execution of four Shi’a activists would be music to the ears of the Salafis in the Kingdom and elsewhere in the Gulf.
However, the reactions in the world have mainly focused on Sheikh al-Nimr, one of the main leaders of the Shi’a in the Kingdom. The Saudis claim that he promoted violence while his supporters make him into a model of democratic non-violence. Where the truth lies is not evident. But wherever it may lie the Saudi leadership knew there would be reactions, especially from Iran. The Saudi leadership actually may have sought to provoke Iran into a violent response.
Saudi Arabia has had extremely bad press in the past year since King Salman came to the throne. It feels that Iran is making great strides with the West, Russia, and China at its expense. In other words, Saudi Arabia feels isolated in what it deems to be its righteous fight against the forces of evil represented by Iran. It seems that the Syrian theater is where the main battle takes place. The US, France, and Russia—each for their own reasons but with a common desire to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS or IS)— have been putting a great deal of pressure on the Saudis to reconcile with Assad. The “coalition,” after all, cannot win against IS while at the same time trying to destroy the Syrian regime, however awful it may be. The US, the EU, and Russia are pressuring the Saudis to organize the opposition to Assad and then make a deal with him to destroy their common IS enemy. However, the Saudis see not IS but Iran as their main enemy. For them, making a deal with Assad and fighting IS would only encourage Iran’s endeavors in the region and ultimately allow the Islamic Republic to control the region, including the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
At the same time, the Saudis do not have sufficient military power to do much more than bomb the Houthis in Yemen. The bombing campaign has shown to the Iranians that the Saudis do have some military capacity, but certainly not enough to dominate the region. Twenty-one million Saudis citizens cannot match 80 million Iranians. Hence the Saudis need to whip up protection from the US, their only true protector in the past, but at a time when the US is feeling less and less committed to a regime that has garnered a lot of bad press over the last year.
Enter Sheikh al-Nimr, the perfect victim. His execution satisfies the Salafis and provokes Iran. The entirely predictable burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, followed immediately by the breaking of diplomatic relations and the severing of trade and air links, is only the beginning. The Saudis are gambling that the more negatively Iran reacts, the more the US will side with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Iran’s actions would prove to the US that the nuclear deal was a mistake and encourages the rhetoric that President Obama’s refusal to send ground troops to fight Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers in Syria was a sign of weakness. In other words, the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr could represent a trap to get the US to support Saudi Arabia against Iran, against the president’s better judgment. It allows the Saudis to cancel all negotiations with Iran on Syria and other matters and start pushing the US and some EU members into a ground war, which the Saudi themselves cannot or are not willing to fight.
Undoubtedly, in the present political climate in the US, the fear-mongers will demand more US military action in the region, with Iran as the ultimate target. What will go unmentioned, of course, will be the likelihood that future U.S. military interventions in the Middle East will fare as miserably as the previous intervention in Iraq. Nor will anyone discuss the astronomical expense in blood and treasure of these interventions, costs that were borne by the US public and that produced huge budget deficits that only increased U.S. dependency on foreign creditors, in particular China.
Photo: Saudi security forces
Jean-François Seznec is an adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.